Have you ever tried something you thought you’d (probably) be amazing at, only to find that your abilities were slightly underestimated or applied wrongly? Have you ever discovered, quite by accident, that there’s something you’re really pretty good at? Excellent, even?
I started taking drama classes as a teenager, absolutely convinced that I could either change my world (by being naturally brilliant, being Discovered, and then taking Hollywood by storm) or change someone else’s (probably through acting a role so tenderly and sumptuously that my audience would be inspired to tears by my portrayal, and would realise that they’d had ‘A Moment’). Suffice it to say, I had it all planned out, right up to how my name would look in those bright lights.
Of course, the talent scouts were only ever going to be local, and I (no, it was definitely later rather than sooner) faced up to the fact that this was a smalltime drama class in a little town with really no hope of hitting the Bigtime, but plenty of space for learning and friends and having fun.
So when I heard about the tumbling class, it sounded right up my street and I signed up straight away. Little did I know that this was what would lead to my Big Break.
The tumbling class was hard work, but I’ve always been strong, and the slapstick aspects came naturally to me, as we played with physical comedy and allowed our bodies to become the tools of our humour. I discovered I was particularly good at climbing up things and falling off them, often ending up bruised all over, and sore from laughing.
Talent scouts did come to town, but not the Hollywood glam types I’d imagined. These were altogether rougher and more ready – they’d just rolled into town with the circus, and were looking for some locals to help them out with the show. They were reputable enough, and whilst our teacher wouldn’t endorse the move (in so many words), she didn’t object to us auditioning for them, to see whether we would fit in.
We all jumped at the chance – literally – jumping and dancing and jinking our hearts out; showing off our best moves and routines for them; treating two guys with tans and grubby shirts as though they were bookers for William Morris. They grinned encouragement to me as I shimmied up one of the roof ropes, hand over hand, ignoring the burn, wrapping the rope around my legs as I neared the top, and then leaning out, spinning, holding myself horizontal using the spiralling momentum, before allowing myself to invert and slide down the rope upside down, using my feet to hold onto the loops, before winking and crashing (deliberately) to the floor from a height of about 10 feet, picking myself up and giving myself a comical shake before bowing and staggering ‘offstage’.
I got picked.
I floated home on such a high! I was going to the circus the next day to be fitted for an outfit, and to start rehearsals, and better still, I’d even get paid. Pin money, but money nonetheless – earned for mucking around having FUN.
The next morning I turned up bright and early and began rehearsals, then returned after college was done for the day. We practiced for three days – a shockingly small amount, really, but these were only bit-parts – and marvelled at the incredible stamina and skill of the other performers (the real ones). I worked on a new ending with a couple of the gymnasts, so that my rope trick didn’t come too close to clowning, but remained firmly in the ‘stunting’ world.
In between practices, I got fitted for the most sumptuous outfit, all spangled bright lace, velvet bodice and soft, supple shoes. They told me that one of the gymnasts would fix my make-up so that it would work under the bright lights (an art form, apparently, requiring years of know-how).
And I waited.
With my breath clenched inside of me, and excitement forever coiling and curling like a snake basking in the glory of the sun, that final dress rehearsal, and OPENING NIGHT drew inexorably, teeth-grittingly, heart-flutteringly nearer.
Crowds gathered, trickling in, their feet making shadows which slid alongside the cramped, canvas-smelling dressing-room space (with mirrors with lightbulbs around the edge – a true nod to my Hollywood dreams), quickening my pulse as the layers of thick, creamy make-up were piled onto my skin, blended into my hairline and I was bewigged, dressed, adorned and thoroughly gussied up.
I revelled, listening to the preceding acts, feeling the vibration of the music pressing around me, hearing the roar of the crowd and catching a huge high from the energy being released in the ring. I snuck a peek through the edges of the tent, and before I was whisper-shouted away to go and get into position, I saw utterly stunning acts of clowning, hoop mastery, fire eating, gymnastics and horse riding, all somehow transformed and made magical with the addition of the bright lights, booming announcements and the rippling applause, punctuated by whoops and whistles from the thronged stands.
I waited in line, shaking with excitement next to the other teen performers, and we heard our music intro (at which point I nearly vomited, it’s true) and simultaneously, all tightened our muscles, found our ‘performance heads’ and went for it.
Oh how we went for it!
We danced; we jived; we jinked and shimmied. We glittered, our bodies swaying in time to that ever-present beat. Our faces under the lights, were beautiful, and we knew it, throwing searchlight grins at everyone, every second, because every single cell of our bodies knew that this was IT.
Finally, my highlight – my solo – and as the others fell into their positions around me, I hauled my way swiftly up the rope, this time softer – a true performance rope – and wrapped it around me. I could feel the lights hot on my bare shoulders and neck, and as I leaned backwards, I felt as though I was glowing – my ribcage bursting open with the crescendos of the song, as I span in circles and circles of dizzying beauty, holding myself strong in the centre, with arms open to embrace every last particle of stardust and magic from the bright, crowd-scented top of that tent, as wave upon wave of frenzied applause washed over me like the most wonderful storm-clouds you ever saw.
At the top of that rope, with the shouts of the crowd in my ears, the greasepaint in my eyes and pores, the shining, spangled clothes and my strength and capability causing a massive ‘WOW!’ moment, I was absolutely the MOST beautiful, magical, wonderful creature which ever existed. Like drugs rushing through my veins, the endorphins and excitement made every part of me feel as though it were made of molten gold and fairydust.
And still I span in circles, with all that mattered in the world, in that moment, winding around below me.
The song faded and I allowed myself to arch back, further and further until I was inverted, and heard (with immense gratification) the collective gasp, as I began to plummet towards the earth, faster than ever before, barely allowing myself the luxury of checking my descent with my feet, for I had seen in my mind how much better this could be if I sped it up.
I reached the crucial point in the rope, and went into my new move, flipping myself the right way up as I launched off the rope, curving through the air in a gorgeous somersault and down into the sawdust for a tuck, roll and up again into a bow.
Standing. Ovation. Thankyouverymuch.